Dino-Tours: Movie Nights at the Museum (ft. Mike of the Mesozoic!)

The Lowdown:
Feb 9th: 'Alien' (1979), doors open 8:30pm, film screening 10pm
Tickets £56 for two 
Drinks: £11.10 for 1 bottle of beer and 1 glass of white wine
Popcorn: £5
Accommodation: Avni Kensington Hotel, £69 (double room, breakfast inc.)
Total: £81

It's been at least a year since I last visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. This has largely been down to the recent renovation on the main hall of the Waterhouse building and short-term closure of the dinosaur exhibit. However, now the hall is reopened to the public with a collection of new exhibits and the dinosaur hall is once again accessible (though albeit still undergoing work), February 2018 seemed a good time to consider a return visit.

And what better way to enjoy the NHM after all this time than to attend a special event? Throughout February and March the NHM is staging 'Movie Nights at the Museum': a series of late-night screenings of sci-fi classics in the newly renovated Hintze Hall. The list of titles on offer did at first appear a bit random to me when choosing our event: for instance I can see how 'Gravity' would fit in with topical NHM disciplines, but 'E.T." and "Star Wars: Rogue One" seem a bit, well; random. I would have imagined that titles such as "Gorillas in the Mist" and "Jurassic Park" would have been more likely choices? Although I'm aware that many nature-related movies can be (speaking diplomatically) not great crowd-pleasers and the big titles such as JP might entail expensive and awkward distribution issues.

In the end, we opted for Ridley Scott's 'Alien': no less random, but by far the best-loved in our case from the offers on show. So, we ordered our tickets and on Friday, we headed straight up to the Museum for a pre-movie sneak around the exhibits after-hours!
For £28 a head, the event gives visitors the opportunity to wander around the Dinosaurs and Mammals galleries, free from the usual heaving hordes of daytime visitors for a couple of hours before the film starts (a big draw for people like us!).

However, upon arrival at the museum, we realised that nowhere on the website or on our tickets had we seen any indication of which entrance to use, so Mike & I ended up wandering around the entire building and back again on one of the coldest nights of the year thus far before Mike suggested we try the Queens Gate Entrance as a last resort. On reaching the opposite side of the building we found and joined a small huddle of equally eager movie-goers congregating next to the side gate signposted "Queen's Gate Entrance". However, after ten minutes of waiting and no signs of the gate being opened, one public-spirited individual in the crowd rang the museum reception to let them know we were there only to be told that the gate that we were waiting at (I reiterate: the one actually labelled clearly as "Queen's Gate Entrance") was not the actual entrance itself: that lay some distance down the road, at the front of the Darwin Centre! Cold and a little annoyed by the confusing signage, we hot-footed over to the entrance to reclaim some precious collection-browsing time.

Two frozen hominins begin to thaw out...
 Once through the usual business of bag checks and registers, we went straight to the bar to acquire some drinks to see us through the collection in style. However, when Mike politely asked the bar staff to confirm that it was OK for us to take our drinks into the Dinosaur hall, she responded that No, that would not be allowed. Saddened and a little perplexed by this response, we started to wander around the dinosaur collection empty-handed.

Mike of the Mesozoic

Baryonyx walkeri

In spite of the fact that the dinosaur hall is still a good twenty years overdue for a face lift and features some embarrassingly incorrect signage and reconstructions, it is a treat to be able to wander around at night when there's no one else around. The walkway is currently shut as it is due to be removed completely at some point in the near future, so many of the specimens mounted above head height are too high to really enjoy. However, the Baryonyx walkeri and Deinocheirus mirificus mounts are equally splendid when viewed from ground level as they are from above.

Camarasaurus supremus

Animatronic Deinonychis antirrhopus. I remember when these guys first arrived at the NHM about twenty years ago. Since then they've enjoyed a facelift and have magically evolved feathers!

As we made our way around the exhibit, Mike & I observed more and more prople wandering around with glasses and bottles in their hands! This was, frankly, an insult: we had been sure that we should have been able to take drinks in with us (it would seem strange to have the bar set up in the hall at all if it were not the case?), so we headed back to claim our refreshments (which at this point had come to represent our very human rights in our own estimations). A bottle of beer and a small glass of white wine came to just over £11: pretty steep even for London standards, but for the sake of supporting my beloved NHM, I was able to square the expense in my head (although admittedly it was Mike who actually paid for the drinks, so the sacrifice on my part was largely symbolic).

Mike makes up for lost time...

Allosaurus fragillis

Armed finally with our beverages, we repaired back to the dino hall to resume our tour. However, as we wandered around, we could only reflect on how sad it was to see all these familiar mounts for the most part covered in thick layers of dust. I am sure that it can be a challenge to dust the vertebrae of an Allosaurus skeleton, especially when it's mounted ten feet in the air, but surely there must be crews whose job is to keep the exhibition spaces clean and relatively dust-free? What does it really tell the world of our attitude to natural sciences, when our national museum's specimens are dusty and their accompanying signage is so old that the illustrations are anatomically incorrect, the information is outdated (the Baryonyx is, according to its legend "the largest therapod found in the British Isles this century". Erm, the 20th century ended over fifteen years ago guys...) and the graphics have long since faded to the extent that there is little to no red ink left in them?

Mike discovers that an impenetrable barrier of tape bars our entry to the T. rex exhibit...

...and silently comes to terms with our fate.

I hate to have to complain about the NHM because I do love it so much and I want it to be all the things I know it can be, but there was further disappointment in store when Mike & I discovered that the animatronic T. rex was closed to visitors. The most disappointing aspect of this was that we could hear the sound effects from around the corner, but the barriers across the entrance indicated that we would not be welcome there. At this point, having spent £28 plus more than a tenner for two drinks, we were just starting to feel ever so slightly ripped off.

However, movie time was approaching and we were determined to enjoy our evening, so we bid goodnight to the Baryonyx and made our way back to the bar for some popcorn to take into the main hall. Our woes were to continue here though, for having purchased a not terribly large box of popcorn for £5, we took our seats underneath 'Hope'; the new Blue whale specimen in Hintze hall, only to find that the popcorn featured no seasoning of any kind whatsoever. No salt, no sugar; just plain air-popped popcorn. Now, I happen to like bland, unseasoned popcorn, but I don't like it anywhere near enough to justify forking out £5 for a diminutive portion of the stuff. And I was the lucky one - poor Mike couldn't eat any of it, as he found it just too unpalatable.

However, as we took our seats and considered, sadly, our overpriced snack of choice, the preamble to the film was underway: in the form of a slide deck displaying examples of "sciencey" facts pertaining to the film. These covered subjects such as why it is that "In space, no one can hear you scream" and how Jewel wasps reproduce by laying their eggs in the bodies of live hosts, etc. I though this was a nice touch and lent a sense of place and purpose to the proceedings. Suddenly the choice of 'Alien' made a great deal more sense.

'Hope' is beautifully lit and looks suitably eerie once the house lights go down...

Instead of adverts, the film is preceded by a selection of "nature factoids" pertaining to the film

One nice thing about watching a film at the NHM was the lack of adverts (I get quite irrationally angry at lengthy adverts before a film when I'm at the cinema) and I must say that the event organisers did a great job of arranging the seating: all the seats were staggered, so everyone could get a fairly decent view and they didn't try to pack out the entire hall with chairs, so most people were abler to get a pretty good seat.
Another huge plus point I have to say, even after all our issues of feeling a bit exploited and disregarded by the staff at various points, was the atmosphere. Being able to sit underneath a huge whale skeleton watching a creepy film in the dark is a great sensation and a real treat.
The one big downside to the actual viewing experience itself (one which I had predicted, but not been quite so prepared for) was the temperature. It takes a lot of energy to fill a space the size of Hintze hall and late at night in February it gets very, very cold, so we kept our scarves and gloves on throughout the film. Another noticeable issue that kept arising was the audio, which for the most part was perfectly fine, but in some scenes came across very strangely.

The film didn't kick off until 10pm, so by the time the credits rolled, Mike & I were more than ready to make our way back to our hotel for the night, promising to come back tomorrow to get a better look at the new Hintze hall exhibits.

All in all, I think we can safely say we had a good time at 'Movie Nights at the Museum', but we did feel a bit exploited when it came to refreshments. I feel bad saying this because I understand that is is expensive to host an event like this and the museum, which is free to enter during the day, needs to make a sizeable profit on souvenirs and refreshments. However, whilst I would have been happy to pay a larger entry fee upfront and have no problem with paying a little over the odds on alcohol and hot drinks, we were deeply unimpressed by the lack of food options (basically popcorn and tiny pots of either jelly beans or peanuts were all that was on offer in addition to the usual bags of crisps) and the extortionate pricing on the popcorn.

So, all things considered I personally would still highly recommend 'Movie Nights at the Museum' as a fun and alternative night out, but would caution would-be film buffs to wrap up warm, bring your own snacks and don't let anyone try to tell you that you can't take your drinks into the dinosaurs hall!

The verdict:
Experience: 7/10
Food: 2/10
Value for money: 6/10

And now, over to my special guest blogger Mike of the Mesozoic for his spin on the event:
Oh no! My alcoholism has been recorded in damning photographic evidence! It's, uh... it's not what it looks like?

Alice has done a pretty thorough job of summing up the experience. The part where we essentially just wandered around an almost-deserted dinosaur gallery after hours was the part we were the most excited about, I think - the movie tickets being little more than an excuse to be allowed in to do that - and that was by far the best part of the visit. I found myself wishing, semi-seriously, that I'd had the foresight to buy tickets for the earlier movie showing that evening ("E.T.", I believe) and just not go to see the movie. The dinosaur gallery is truly a treat, with its magnificent Camarasaurus, Baryonyx and Albertosaurus mounts - all intensely familiar to me, of course, as a lifelong British dinosaur lover (I originally typed 'palaeophile' and couldn't get past how wrong that word looked...) 

Alice is right about the signage, of course. We understand that it's an enormous, expensive undertaking to remount all those outdated skeletons (and almost all of them are behind the times to some extent, some more dramatically than others), but that is a problem that can be rectified more simply with signage. "We now know that Iguanodon's tail didn't touch the floor," and those sorts of things. How much does it cost to redo the signs more often than every twenty years, guys? Not that this is a problem that is unique to London's Natural History Museum; as Alice reported in a previous post, Berlin's Naturkunde Museum also suffers from antiquated and misleading signage, apparently nearly a decade out of step with modern palaeontology. I'm being serious: how much does it cost? Really? We are both palaeo-literate artists and designers and would happily redo all the graphics for free. We'll chip in for the printing! I'm being completely serious. 

Anyway, I'm getting off-topic. The actual event itself, I'm sorry to say, comes only guardedly recommended, mostly due to the aforementioned popcorn ripoff and the somewhat lazy presentation of the film (a projected DVD playback preceded by a hastily cobbled-together PowerPoint presentation). We're both absolutely happy to support the Natural History Museum, of course, and I assumed that everything would be overpriced ahead of time; the event is obviously a fundraiser for the institute. I just don't see that it was necessary to ask us to pay through the nose for cheapo snacks; they could have just added a fiver to the ticket price and I would have paid it happily, to later be sold good snacks at a sensible price. But we had a lovely time! The film, of course, was a treat - the acoustics of the Hintze Hall made some of the dialogue somewhat hard to discern, but it wasn't like we hadn't both seen "Alien" a hundred times before. After all, who doesn't love a movie night?

So, that was the story of our romantic Valentine's date, to visit a bunch of skeletons and watch a movie wherein a lot of people get horribly murdered by a disgusting space monster. Alice, I believe, is going to write up our continued museum adventures the following morning in a future post - so stay tuned for that!



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